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  How to Build a Free and Fast Link-Alert Service

by Eric Ward

One of my favorite ways to help a new Web site attract users is to seek out email-based venues where the site is a topical match for that venue and where such an announcement is acceptable to post.

For example, if I'm announcing a new Alfred Hitchcock content site, I do a search through places like Yahoo! Groups (formerly eGroups) or Topica and look for any e-newsletters and e-zines with a focus on Hitchcock. And you'd be pleasantly surprised at just how many topical discussion lists, e-newsletters, forum boards, etc., exist for any given topic. In most cases, these venues have fewer than a couple hundred regular users/readers, but sometimes you find a venue with thousands.

Focused, Vertical, Topical

These are primarily email-based venues. The majority of users/readers subscribe and receive the daily messages via their email programs. Some email programs offer a Web-based option for reading posts, like Yahoo! Groups, and some don't; and some folks use Web-based email programs like Yahoo! Mail to subscribe. Regardless of how the reader arrives at the content, the bottom line is that these are highly focused, vertical, topical venues that do not tolerate spam.

Let's say you have found a discussion list with 542 participants that is a perfect topical match for the Web site you have just launched. You have no doubt that some or all of the users/readers will at least be glad to know your site exists. But the list does not accept paid email ads.

So assume you discover the appropriate method for sending an announcement to these users/readers. (Hint: It isn't by subscribing just long enough to dump a post and then unsubscribe.)

Tracking Trouble

Now your URL has been distributed to the users/readers, maybe in the form of an announcement or in a .sig file, and as they log in to read their email, some begin clicking on your URL.

(This is the point where all you folks who like to track your site users can begin grumbling.)

Tracking a user who comes to your site after clicking on an email link is far more complicated than tracking a user who comes to your site from another Web site (and, in many instances, it's impossible). Server logs sometimes contain a long line of gibberish that looks like this:**&%8888*&*&^$

Gibberish translated: Someone saw your URL/link in her email, and clicked on it. And this was an easy one. Sometimes Web servers don't even give you any reference for clicks originating from an email program.

Multiply this by hundreds of Web-based email accounts and other methods for accessing email, and the tracking of your link as it bounds its way around the email world is impossible. Marketers want both viral marketing and trackability, and this just cannot be done easily or accurately. The two objectives are not compatible.

Unfortunately, because of the difficulty, many marketers either avoid email venues or try improper workarounds. When you are sending a URL/link to a user/reader who will be seeing that URL while she's in her email program, there are a few things to consider.

How to Make Friends and Encourage Clicks

First of all, don't be so zealous about tracking that you offend the reader. Some marketers try to use tracking URLs for discussion group posts just like they do for bulk email or banner ads. This is not the way to make friends or encourage clicks. It's one thing to use a tracking URL for some anonymous list of opt-in names you bought, but when a member of a discussion list makes a supposedly friendly post to a list I'm a member of, and it looks like this -- -- I'm offended.

If a URL redirects a user, it's quite likely that user will be offended, too. Nobody likes being played. Expectations from bulk mail and spam are different than for private email discussion areas. And no matter how clever you try to be, any moderator worth his salt can spot a Web URL advertisement masquerading as a discussion post. Making enemies of discussion moderators is not smart marketing.

Second, don't forget the single most basic aspect of email links. They need to be clickable, not "cut-and-paste-able." It's a simple thing; just put http:// in your URL, and it will be clickable. Leave it off, and it won't be. And 99 out of 100 readers will never visit your site because to do so requires them to cut and paste the URL into their browser.

Ask yourself which of the following links you are most likely to follow:

You should have picked the second one because you can click on it. It seems so obvious, but every day I get email with URLs that have left off the http:// and thus aren't clickable.

AOL email users are a completely different beast. You have to use HTML coding to make links clickable for them. But that's a subject for another day.

Until next time, I remain,

Eric Ward, the Link Mensch

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